Re-Evaluating the Silent-Film Music Holdings at the Library of Congress

By Graff, Peter | Notes, September 2016 | Go to article overview

Re-Evaluating the Silent-Film Music Holdings at the Library of Congress


Graff, Peter, Notes


ABSTRACT

The United States Library of Congress houses one of the largest collections of silent-film music in a single location. While many scholars have commented on the library's silent-film scores and cue sheets, only a small portion of their silent-film holdings has been considered. Notably missing from the existing literature is any information about the library's extensive collection of photoplay music--the incidental mood music used to accompany silent films. In most silent-film scoring pursuits, photoplay music served an instrumental role, but despite its importance in laying the groundwork for over a century of audiovisual media, we have yet to fully study the scope and legacy of this generic stock. With the aim of assessing this neglected repertory, this article examines two sizable classification series containing silent-film music at the library: M176 "Motion Picture Music," containing over 1,800 items, and M1357 "Moving Picture Orchestra," with over 1,300 items. The article surveys hundreds of diverse photoplay music volumes, which help to elucidate the long, yet tacit, history of using generic production music in the film industry. By cataloging and contextualizing M176 and M1357, this article supplements extant scholarship on the Library of Congress's impressive film-music holdings, and ultimately encourages further exploration into the many untapped, yet worthy, areas of early film-music history.

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Cinema flickered into existence in the late nineteenth century, and in the ensuing decades of incubation developed the innovative techniques and conventions that went on to inform the advanced art we recognize today. Within this rapid period of maturation, cinematography grew more sophisticated, simple plots evolved into intricate and engaging narratives, and musical accompaniment quickly became an inseparable component of the medium. With few musical standards of practice upon which to draw, theater managers experimented with various accompaniment techniques, including everything from silence and disinterested mechanical instruments to improvisation and original compositions that sought to match the screen's every action.

To cope with the increasing film length and turnover rates in the mid-1910s, (1) music directors and film exhibitors across the United States began relying heavily on three distinct and intersecting accompanimental aids: cue sheets, compilation scores, and photoplay music. Early efforts in film scoring followed the lead of melodramatic theater by compiling accompaniments from existing popular tunes and classical repertory. To supplement these familiar works, composers generated numerous collections of incidental music--often with generic titles like "Hurry," "Furioso," and "Mysterioso"--to better match the various moods and scenarios of the screen. Theaters amassed extensive production libraries of this so-called photoplay music, which greatly facilitated the scoring process. Studios and trade papers further helped exhibitors select appropriate music by offering film-specific cue sheets that included a list of works (mostly photoplay music) to perform at specific points throughout the presentation (fig. 1). For a few select motion pictures, studios offered fully realized scores that, while occasionally containing original content, typically comprised a compilation of existing stock music. In most silent-film scoring pursuits, photoplay music served an instrumental role, but despite its importance in laying the groundwork for over a century of audiovisual media, we have yet to fully unpack the expansive scope and legacy of this generic stock.

To assess the neglected repertory of photoplay music, I spent the summer of 2014 at the United States Library of Congress (LC), digging through dusty boxes of old film music. As home to one of the largest collections of silent-film music in a single location, the library is an ideal starting point for such an investigation. …

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